Remarks by President Johnson
To our faculty, students, and staff: What a joy to be here with all of you at the start of Wellesley’s 143rd year.
This is the second time that I’ve had the honor of addressing you at convocation.
Last fall, I was a new president. I was excited about what lay ahead, but so much was unknown.
Today, feels very different—and, because of what I’ve learned, even more exciting.
I know the power of Wellesley in ways that I could not then. To all of you who have guided me to this point, I am grateful beyond measure.
And to those of you newly arrived: I can’t wait to get to know you!
A special welcome to our newest students, the Green Class of 2021! The fact that I am wearing green under this robe is not a coincidence. It speaks to the special solidarity I feel with you as I think back on my own first year.
It also speaks to the gifts that come with new starts and fresh perspectives. A reminder that we all do well to cultivate what’s called “beginner’s mind.”
Welcome, too, to our 12 new Davis Scholars and our 25 transfer students, to our new faculty, and to our new administrative and union members.
And a big welcome back to the Red Class of 2020—I will always be one of you—to the Yellow Class of 2019, and to this year’s seniors: the Purple Class of 2018! May this be your best year yet, a culmination of all that has gone before. And may you serve as a beacon to all of us. We will be looking to you.
As we gather on this beautiful day, I also want to remember everyone swept up in the tragedies of Hurricane Harvey and the floods in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. I think especially of our students and alumnae—and all of those we know and love.
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We come together today at a pivotal moment for the nation—and the world. Earlier this morning, we learned of the Trump administration’s decision to end DACA—the acronym for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—which gives protected legal status to some 800,000 young people brought to the United States as children.
And it was only last month that we saw Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, and other white supremacists march through Charlottesville, Virginia. Armed and carrying torches, they shouted words of hate. In an act of domestic terrorism, a man drove a car into a crowd, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring many others.
These events further roiled a nation already at a crisis point. So much of what we cherish is now in peril. For many of us, this is deeply personal. We have seen travel bans, and immigration crackdowns, and now the reversal of DACA directly threaten members of the Wellesley community.
We have seen renewed assaults on women’s health care and so many other rights—including the basic human right to be treated with dignity.
This is where we are now. This is reality.
And yet—and this is so important—it is not the only reality.
Amidst the terrible floods of Texas, we’ve seen remarkable feats of courage, kindness, and heroism. Among the heroes is 31-year-old Alonso Guillen, who died when his boat overturned while he was trying to rescue others. Alonso was a DACA recipient. His father had told his son to hold back—it was too dangerous—but Alonso persisted. He said he wanted to help people.
Last month, just miles from here, we saw an estimated 40,000 people march through Boston in peaceful protest after the events in Charlottesville. In the words of Mayor Marty Walsh: “Boston stood for peace and love, not bigotry and hate.”
And know that at Wellesley, we will do all that we can to ensure the current safety and future status of those protected under DACA, as well as our other immigrant students.
Here at Wellesley, we start this new year in that same spirit. Looking out over this gathering, I see so much brilliance. So much good will. So much commitment to the vision and values that drive you. Yes, there is ugliness, but there is also beauty. Yes, there is rage and hate. But there is also you.
During my first year as president, I saw again and again the awe-inspiring power of this community in action. Today, I stand before you firmly convinced that Wellesley can help lead the way toward a better future.
Wellesley was founded with a moral mission. Our origins can be traced to a living room in Boston’s Back Bay, where a group of women came together to tackle the urgent challenges of post-Civil War industrialization. Key among these were helping the droves of vulnerable young women flooding into cities to work in often dangerous conditions.
Wellesley’s founders, Pauline and Henry Durant, were deeply committed to expanding opportunity. They saw this as essential to securing the nation’s democratic future. From the start, Wellesley brought together students from across the economic spectrum. From the start, Wellesley recognized the value of diversity and inclusiveness.
That perspective is evident in a classic essay by Wellesley’s second president, who took the helm in 1882. In glowing terms, Alice Freeman Palmer described the life-changing shift that happens when a young woman befriends classmates from backgrounds very different from her own: “[S]he realizes how much richer a world she lives in than she ever dreamed of at home. The wealth that lies in differences has dawned upon her vision.”
“The wealth that lies in differences has dawned upon her vision.” This line remains as resonant today as when it was written.
As a liberal arts college, Wellesley is committed to truth-seeking—to the values of critical inquiry, fact-based debate, and the evolution of knowledge. We are committed to the highest standards of academic rigor.
Yet, as strong as these commitments are, they are not our only values. From our earliest days, they have been intertwined with a commitment to diversity, inclusiveness, and social justice.
Shortly after I became president, I received a beautiful book from the Wellesley alumnae community—a volume filled with gorgeous photographs, memories, and reflections. It includes this quote from class of 1959 alumna Madeleine Albright’s 2007 Wellesley commencement address: “Wellesley has stayed true to tradition while growing in every conceivable way.”
In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about those words. I’ve especially been thinking about how they speak to our Latin motto, Non Ministrari sed Ministrare: Not to be ministered unto, but to minister.
“To minister” has many meanings. Often, it means to lead religious services. But “to minister” also means to care—and it’s this definition that keeps coming back to me.
In these troubled times, how can we best care for our community and the world?
And equally important, how can we care for ourselves? This last question may strike some as overly self-involved in a time of global crisis. But consider these words from writer Audre Lorde: “[C]aring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Tough words, yes. But also apt.
I don’t need to tell you that emotions run high these days. So many of us feel under fire, at risk of imminent harm. Our heart rate and blood pressure spike. Our breathing quickens. We tend toward fight, flight, or freeze. We lose the openness and curiosity needed for fruitful conversations.
We witnessed this up close last year, when campuses across the country—including our own—saw heated conflicts over what ideas have a place on college and university campuses. Where should the line be drawn? To what extent should we welcome perspectives that some—or even most—find dangerous or offensive?
This summer, I spent a good bit of time wresting with such questions. I’d accepted an invitation to give a lay sermon at a chapel on Martha’s Vineyard. The topic I was asked to address was freedom of expression on campus. I’ll be honest, the idea of giving a Sunday sermon was a bit outside my comfort zone. But you know what? It turned out to be a wonderful opportunity. It gave me the chance to come at these issues from a new angle, one that embraces Wellesley’s moral vision, to ask: How can we both speak our truths and embody an ethic of care?
The more I thought about this, the more convinced I became that we need to have a bigger conversation. Beyond the question of what we have the right to say, lies another question: What do we want to say, given who we want to be? What we say is a matter of character. In the words of poet Marie Howe: “The moral life is lived out in what we say more often than [in] what we do.”
You’ve probably heard the phrase “Check your privilege.”
Well, I’ve been thinking that we might do well to say: “Check your values.” I’m not suggesting we say this to others but, rather, to ourselves. Does what we are saying—and how we say it—reflect who we want to be? Does it reflect our shared values as a community, including the respect for diversity, inclusion, and equity foreshadowed by our founders’ vision?
These are big questions. And our answers matter.
Looking ahead, my hope is that we can have a robust conversation about our conversations. A meta conversation, if you will. Why do some conversations break down? Why do others flourish? How can we do more of what works and less of what does not? Along with your own experiences, there is a large and growing body of research that can help us think about these questions.
During my short tenure here, I have seen again and again that we have many strengths to build on. One example that’s stayed with me is a dinner I shared with members of Wellesley’s sustainable living cooperative—SCoop, for short. Over a delicious meal that the students had prepared together, as they do each night, I saw how a shared commitment to sustainability gave rise to something even larger: a rich network of relationships, grounded in common purpose. It reminded me yet again that, the more we connect around what we share, the greater our capacity to bridge our differences.
As we move into this new year, I invite you to think of Wellesley as a natural laboratory for us to explore how to talk to each other. Give thought not only to what you say, but also to how you say it. Be curious. Experiment. Reflect.
All of this will require honesty—and not a little courage. It will also take time. But at a moment as perilous as this, I can think of no more important skill to master—and no more important skill to model, both on campus and far beyond. I can think of no more powerful way to minister to the world.